Tuesday, December 22, 19998

CONTACT: Sharon Tanzer (NCI)

Tom Clements
(Greenpeace) 202-319-2426


Warning that the next sea shipment of highly radioactive waste may be departing soon, the Nuclear Control Institute and Greenpeace International today made public an internal Panama Canal Commission memo that documents a major security breach involving a nuclear waste ship in the canal earlier this year.

In letters to the U.S. Secretaries of State, Defense and Energy, the two organizations called for barring nuclear cargo ships from the canal until the U.S. government investigates and corrects the serious breakdown in security that occurred in February when the Pacific Swan, en route from Europe to Japan with a cargo of highly radioactive nuclear waste, entered the canal.

The Panama Canal Commission (PCC) memo, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, found that "communication, command and control...was dysfunctional" when Greenpeace protesters easily boarded the nuclear-waste ship as it entered the Canal and hung a "Stop Plutonium" banner from the radio mast. The report noted that patrol boats had failed to spot the Greenpeace launch and that the ship's crew had thought the demonstrators to be security personnel boarding the ship.

"Had the ship been boarded by a group of well-armed attackers instead of peaceful demonstrators, its cargo would have been in grave jeopardy, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the people of Panama," Greenpeace and NCI declared in their letter to the Cabinet secretaries. "Given the shippers' frequently professed concerns about security, we were astonished to discover how thoroughly inept and ineffective were the security arrangements at the Panama Canal. In fact, essential elements of the security system did not work."

Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute, said, "Since the next waste shipment could be sent at any time, the U.S. government should stop dragging its feet and respond to our November 6 letter by banning nuclear shipments through the Panama Canal. Governments in the Caribbean and the Pacific should immediately express concern to the U.S., French, British and Japanese governments about the vulnerability of the nuclear transport vessels. They should also take steps to restrict transit of nuclear cargo ships through their territorial waters."

The two groups sent the letters to the U.S. Government on November 6 but have not yet received a reply. However, they learned in discussions with the State Department that a Panama Canal route has not been ruled out either for the next shipment of high-level waste, which is due to take place soon, or for a shipment of plutonium-uranium, mixed-oxide [MOX] fuel, which is expected to depart from Europe next spring.

In their letter, they cited a security study by Sandia National Laboratories relating to vitrified (glassified) nuclear waste cargoes like the one aboard the Pacific Swan, and they warned that sabotage attack could result in "both the sinking of the ship and the dispersal of deadly radioactive material over a large area." If MOX fuel (known in Japan as "pluthermal" fuel) were seized or diverted, the weapon-usable plutonium contained in it could be extracted by straightforward chemical means, they also noted.

The February 1998 shipment, from France to Japan, was the first ever transit of vitrified high-level nuclear waste through the Panama Canal. The material is a by-product of reprocessing---the separation of weapon-usable plutonium from spent nuclear fuel from Japanese nuclear power reactors. The shipment was conducted without preparation of an environmental assessment by either the Panama Canal Commission or the shippers - British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), COGEMA of France and Japan Nuclear Fuels.

Japan Nuclear Fuels has announced that the next HLW shipment will consist of 40 glass blocks of deadly vitrified nuclear waste and will occur before April 1999. Over 3,000 highly radioactive glass logs are scheduled to be shipped from Europe to Japan in the coming years.

Tom Clements of the Greenpeace Nuclear Campaign cited the events of February 1998 as "an irrefutable demonstration of both the Canal's and ship's security vulnerabilities." He added: "The shipment of this high-level waste not only presents a security and environmental risk but serves no energy purpose in Japan, although Japanese officials have misled states along shipping routes by stating that the shipments were needed for Japan's energy security." He also noted that the plutonium waste also faces only temporary storage in Japan as no long-term plan to manage high-level nuclear waste has been devised.

These shipments have raised concern in the Caribbean. The Caribbean High Commissioners expressed their concern in January 1998 at the "great danger which [these shipments] pose to the fragile Caribbean environment and to the lives of Caribbean people." In April 1998, government leaders at the Second Summit of the Americas pledged "to strengthen standards governing the transport of such goods." In September 1998, the Secretary General of OPANAL called for "new and more comprehensive safety measures . . . for these increasingly dangerous nuclear shipments . . . including the appropriate safeguards, assurances, and liability measures."

Both NCI and Greenpeace advocate a halt to the reprocessing of Japan's spent nuclear fuel, including a ban on new reprocessing contracts with BNFL and COGEMA. Cessation of reprocessing and of fabrication of MOX fuel would permit a halt in maritime nuclear transports.

The letters along with the three-page report, "Pacific Swan Greenpeace Incident," by the Panama Canal Commission's Director of Safety, Environment and Security, are available from Greenpeace and the Nuclear Control Institute or downloaded from the Web:

[What's New] What's New      [Sea Shipments] Sea Shipments    [Home Page]Home Page